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One Man's Junk Is Another's Music : Repercussion Unit Trashes Tradition in Effort to Educate and Entertain

March 10, 1989|LARRY HARNISCH

According to the unwritten credo of the CalArts Repercussion Unit, there is no such thing as a bad piece of junk--take a look at its junkyard assortment, which includes car springs, metal fittings and even the cowling from a 747 jet engine.

The six-member ensemble's intention is to have fun, as it will demonstrate Saturday in a free children's concert at 11 a.m. and a more formal concert at 1 p.m. as part of the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival.

But it's fun with a serious purpose, which is to explain music, according to John Bergamo, head of CalArts' percussion program, and Larry Stein, who in a very loose sense are "co-leaders."

Characterizing the group is a challenge. You can tell a lot about it by its influences: Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, jazz, rock and Indian music. Maybe one of the Repercussion Unit's own descriptions says it best: "the indigenous music of Newhall."

The unit coalesced in the mid-'70s. Bergamo, a classically trained musician with an extensive background in Indian music, worked with members Stein, Jim Hildebrandt, Gregg Johnson, Ed Mann and Stephen L. (Lucky) Mosko as students in what was then the CalArts Percussion Ensemble.

As graduation neared, the members decided that they wanted to continue performing together and produced the Repercussion Unit in 1976. The CalArts ties remained strong: Mosko and Mann joined the music faculty.

The use of non-musical objects to make music is nothing new. Edgar Varese's 1929-31 work "Ionisation" used sirens, among other things. Perhaps the most mainstream performer was Spike Jones, the comic dance-band leader whose renditions of "Dance of the Hours" and "William Tell Overture" used a wide array of auto horns, sirens, gunshots, belches and the "birdaphone," which emitted Bronx cheers.

"We're not specifically influenced by Spike Jones," said Stein, a national associate program director for the Young Audiences program. "Not the music," he added, "but the idea of having fun with

music, using a little more off-the-wall, tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the explanation of music a little more bearable."

Anything is fair game for the Repercussion Unit. The players use some traditional instruments, including timpani, marimba, synthesizers, even the same kind of a trap set that a rock drummer would use. But there's also a table of junk and several small marimba-type instruments, including one made of used 2-by-4s and another from the kind of aluminum tubing used for lawn chairs.

There's even a set of what Bergamo calls "astro-discs," a family of four discs--originally bulkheads, Bergamo suggests--of 1/2-inch-thick aluminum ranging in diameter from 4 feet for the "bass" to 18 inches for the "soprano." They're played by hitting a disc placed on top of a timpani, which serves as a resonator.

Members are on a never-ending search for new instruments. Sometimes they turn up during pilgrimages to junkyards ("I usually end up getting ripped off because I'm so excited they can tell I really want it," Bergamo said).

Sometimes they're simply lying in the street. Bergamo found his favorite "bell," a broken pipe fitting, on the ground. "I threw it down and heard it and knew I had to have it," he said, happily tapping it with a mallet.

The largest instrument is the jet engine cowling. Laid horizontally on stands, the magnesium ring, about 9 feet in diameter, can be bowed, struck or scraped. A trough along the outer edge can be filled with water, allowing even more sounds.

As time passed, some instruments were dropped. For example, Stein said, one was scrapped because the musicians got tired of schlepping the tire chains and the trash can that the chains were thrown into.

Since few composers write music for jet engine cowling, car springs and 2-by-4 marimba, the members compose their entire repertoire, and the heavy foreign influence is apparent.

"As far as the music goes, we're more influenced by other cultures," Stein said, emphasizing the immersion in world music that CalArts requires of its students. "But you don't hear the influence because it's transposed to these instruments."

At the same time, because members come from different backgrounds such as rock or jazz drumming, these elements are also reflected in their works.

Consider a few selections on a recent program and their descriptions:

"Turkey in the Grass," which was "inspired by the haystacks at an unsquare dance"; "Square One," which was "written while recovering in the hospital from an automobile accident," and "Lemon Sisters," which is the "portrait of a day in the life of a serious student of world music while passing through various experiences of India, Ghana, Bali and Manhattan. The strength to continue comes from the humor generated in cheesy segments of the Lawrence Welk Show."

But not all the music is so unfamiliar. One of Repercussion Unit's most popular recordings is a Christmas album produced over several years, released, along with its other recordings, through Stein's Robey Records.

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